I attended a talk on open data and government recently featuring David Eaves. On the surface, open government data initiatives are about sharing government data in standard, machine readable format for anyone to use as they wish. The result is applications like VanTrash that uses city garbage collection data and addresses to tell Vancouverites when to put out their trash. However, David Eaves made a powerful argument that it is about something far more important than that. He argued it’s about the most important strategic asset countries have today: data.
He argued that organizations that understand the power of data win and those that don’t lose. He gave the example of WalMart vs KMart and said that WalMart’s obsession with tracking data powers its phenomenal growth while KMart’s lack of data focus led to its bankruptcy. (He referred the audience to the book The WalMart Effect for more on that. It’s available at my local library so is probably at yours. If anyone wants to do a book club type read on it let me know).
He challenged the mostly government audience to release data or be seen as the enemy of open data. He said he was there because “he’d given up on government” because much of government still resists sharing data with each other let alone the public. To illustrate how much he’s given up he showed his datadotgc.ca site that states in its About section:
Unlike the United States (data.gov) and Britain (data.gov.uk), Canada has no open data strategy. This must change. Canadians paid for the information gathered about our country, ourselves and our government. Free access to it could help stimulate our economy and enhance our democracy. In pursuit of this goal, this website is a citizen-led effort to promote open data and help share data that has already been liberated.
Although, he’s right that the Government of Canada has no open data strategy a group of dedicated public servants are working on one and departments are contributing data sets to the cause.
When I asked about the risks of open data Eaves said, “the question is flawed”. He later wrote a blog post detailing what he meant including the fact the opportunities of open data far outweigh the risks. He added there are already things in place like privacy and criminal codes laws to mitigate the risk of people misusing data – just like there are laws if people misuse guns (maybe we should replace the Gun Registry with the Data Registry. Although, that might cause a revolt among urban knowledge workers feeling branded as criminals ;-))
Eaves closed by saying that government has to lead the open data initiative because if they don’t people will do it themselves and see government as the enemy. He also argued, with data to back it up, that the main user of open government data apps would be – governments.
What are the opportunities and risks of open data for your organization?